‘There is no alternative’

Tony Wood writes about Russia on the eve of the presidential election

In the closing weeks of 2011, the wave of protest that had spread to dozens of cities since the start of the year – from Tunis to Cairo, Madrid to Athens, New York to Oakland – reached some unlikely places. On 10 December, as many as sixty thousand people turned out in Moscow to demonstrate against the falsification of parliamentary election results the previous week; five thousand took to the streets in St Petersburg, while at least three thousand braved temperatures of -20°C in Novosibirsk. Elsewhere in Russia, the crowds were smaller, ranging from hundreds to a few thousand, but the geographical spread was striking: from Kaliningrad in the west to Vladivostok in the far east, via Chelyabinsk and Ekaterinburg in the Urals, Volgograd and Voronezh in the south, the Siberian cities of Tomsk and Irkutsk, even Arkhangelsk and Murmansk in the Arctic.

Further demonstrations were held the following weekend, and a fortnight later, on 24 December, an even larger gathering took place on Moscow’s Sakharov Prospekt, drawing a crowd of perhaps eighty thousand. Politicians, activists, intellectuals, journalists and musicians spoke out against electoral fraud and the corruption of the regime that perpetrated it, especially the ruling United Russia party, the ‘party of crooks and thieves’. Over the next few weeks, the focus of dissent shifted increasingly to Putin. In September he had announced he would again be running for the presidency on 4 March 2012. With the length of the mandate now extended to six years, and Putin eligible for two more consecutive terms, he could conceivably remain in office until 2024. This would make his tenure at the summit of power longer than Brezhnev’s, a prospect that caused some protesters to carry placards with a Time cover from 2007 digitally reworked to show an elderly Putin in 2050, NYET! written firmly across the top. One of the rallying cries of the demonstrations held on 4 February – attended by upwards of sixty thousand people in sub-freezing temperatures in Moscow, at least ten thousand in St Petersburg and hundreds more in other cities – was for a ‘Russia without Putin’.

This seems a distant goal: even if Putin is denied a victory in the first round of voting on 4 March, he will remain the overwhelming favourite to win a second. According to a survey conducted between 20 and 23 January by the Levada Centre, an independent polling agency, he has a thirty-point lead over his presidential rivals; if one leaves out those saying they don’t plan to vote, his score rises to 63 per cent, nearly fifty points ahead of the Communist Party candidate, Gennady Zyuganov. Nevertheless, the resurgence of public protest in Russia has been surprising, given the widely remarked political passivity of the country’s population and the crushing predictability of its elections over the last decade. In any other year, the sudden appearance of so many Russians expressing their fervent dislike of the authorities would have seemed outlandish. But after Tahrir Square, Occupy Wall Street and the Puerta del Sol, protest is becoming a normal feature of the global political landscape, in which the Russian crowds seem like a belated, wintry addition. It’s no doubt true that Zuccotti Park, Syntagma Square and the like set encouraging examples to Russia’s demonstrators: ironically, state TV had over the past year beamed images of disorder in the West into the country’s living rooms, intending to draw a smug contrast with their own officials’ handling of the economic downturn. There are clear resemblances in terms of ideological breadth and organisational methods: in Russia and elsewhere, communists, liberals and greens have rubbed shoulders with anarchists, social democrats, monarchists and nationalists. Many of them have been summoned through Twitter, and blogs and online forums have played their now customary role as sources of information and discussion.

There are further echoes of 2011’s other mobilisations in the tone and aesthetic sensibility of the Russian protests: the anger is laced with irony, and alongside party flags there have been many homemade banners and placards bearing visual and verbal puns. One proclaimed, ‘I didn’t vote for these bastards’ next to the logo of United Russia, continuing: ‘I voted for some other bastards,’ alongside the symbols of the other main parties. Many protesters played on the ambiguity of the Russian word for ‘vote’, golos, which also means ‘voice’, and put tape over their mouths, writing across it ‘nyet golosa’ – ‘I have no voice/vote.’ An anarchist banner in St Petersburg carried a potent double meaning addressed to Russia’s elite: ‘Vy nas dazhe ne predstavliaete,’ which means both ‘You don’t even represent us’ and ‘You can’t even imagine us.’

But as well as the Arab Spring and Occupy, important parallels lie closer to home. For the authorities especially, the protests resemble nothing so much as the ‘colour revolutions’ that toppled governments elsewhere in the former Soviet Union following disputed elections: Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004-5, Kyrgyzstan in 2005. In the Kremlin, these events were seen as the handiwork of CIA stooges, part of a civilian encirclement of Russia to accompany the enlargement of Nato. Putin’s response was to pass a law in 2006 making it difficult for NGOs to operate in Russia if they received funding from overseas. He initially tried to blame the December protests on Hillary Clinton, suggesting on national television that the demonstrators were in the pay of foreign powers. What this ignored, of course, was that the actual trigger for the upsurges was his own party’s widespread electoral fraud.

The official results of the 4 December polls were bad enough for United Russia: its share of the vote dropped from 64 per cent to below the symbolic 50 per cent threshold. But it rapidly became clear that there were serious irregularities in the vote counts. In Chechnya – where Russia has fought two vicious wars since 1994, killing as much as 10 per cent of the population – United Russia won 99.5 per cent of the vote on a 98.6 per cent turnout. Elsewhere there were mathematical miracles: when state TV showed the results from Rostov-on-Don, the combined shares of all the parties came to 146 per cent. The anomalies conformed to particular patterns. United Russia gained a strikingly large proportion of its votes – perhaps a fifth – in districts with abnormally high turnouts, and there were clear spikes in the party’s vote in districts reporting turnouts at suspiciously round percentages – exactly 75 per cent, 80 per cent, 85 per cent, compared to an official national average of 59.7 per cent.

The full extent of the fraud is still subject to debate. It seems to have taken many forms: exclusion of opposition voters from polling stations; manipulation of electoral rolls to include dead or fictional people; ‘hired’ voters casting their ballots in several different districts, with United Russia laying on buses. But the most widespread form of fraud seems to have been simple fiddling of totals. The uncanny roundness of many turnout figures has led some analysts to suggest that electoral officials were padding United Russia’s score rather as Soviet industrial bosses used to meet plan targets. After counting up all the votes, they would see how far turnout fell short of the target, then add that number of votes to the ruling party’s total.

In a much debated statistical analysis posted on the internet and endorsed by the election monitoring organisation Golos, the physicist Sergei Shpilkin argued that United Russia’s final vote tally contained as many as 14 million such ‘extra’ votes, which implies their score should have been 34 per cent rather than 49 per cent. Others have questioned Shpilkin’s statistical premises, including the idea that United Russia’s vote is ‘abnormally’ distributed: can one assume ‘normal’ distribution curves where the complex realities of electoral geography are concerned? It’s true that United Russia has strong support in rural areas, where turnouts are often higher than in cities and voting behaviour tends to be more monolithic, though this in itself is partly a product of the power of patronage, if not direct pressure, exercised by local representatives of the ruling party. But even Shpilkin’s critics agree that some fraud took place, except, of course, for the head of the electoral commission, Vladimir Churov, whose resignation has been one of the protesters’ key demands. Several other estimates put the inflation of United Russia’s score in the range of 5-7 per cent, which translates into somewhere between 3.6 million and five million ‘dead souls’.

What effect did electoral legerdemain have on the results? Officially, the Duma’s 450 seats are now distributed as follows: United Russia 238; Communist Party (KPRF) 92; A Just Russia – a notionally left of centre, ersatz party created by the Kremlin in 2006 to drain votes from the Communist Party – 64; Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) 56. If one were to accept Shpilkin’s figures, United Russia should have secured 166 seats, the KPRF 124, A Just Russia 85 and LDPR 75. The remaining three parties – two neoliberal ones, Yabloko and Right Cause, and Patriots of Russia, another Kremlin forgery – would have improved their performance, but not enough to breach the 7 per cent barrier required to enter parliament. If the fraud wasn’t as extensive as Shpilkin suggests, the discrepancy with the official results would be less significant: if United Russia’s vote were reduced by 5 to 7 per cent, it would end up with a few more than two hundred seats, the KPRF with around a hundred, the LDPR and A Just Russia sixty or seventy apiece. Whichever estimate one uses for the scale of fraud, the overall composition of the parliament doesn’t change.

This is a measure of the effectiveness of the Kremlin’s control over the political system. The three opposition parties are scarcely worthy of the designation: A Just Russia is a Kremlin front, the LDPR a standing joke, the KPRF little more than a passive reservoir for the votes of pensioners. The Duma itself has been seen, in Russia and outside it, as essentially a rubber-stamp body ever since Yeltsin bombed it into submission in October 1993 and rewrote the constitution on hyper-presidentialist lines. In the aftermath of the 2011 elections, the KPRF leadership alternated incoherently between crying foul at the fraud and boasting about the number of seats it now had, between endorsing the protests and warning, much as Putin did, against attempts to ‘destabilise’ the country. This makes the government’s resort to vote-rigging all the more surprising: with a tame parliament more or less guaranteed, why go to the trouble of fixing the outcome? As for the protesters, why object to the rigged results when the real ones would hardly have been an improvement?

The deep unpopularity of the ruling party is one part of the answer, the nature of the system over which it presides is another. United Russia, created in 2001 as a fusion of two pre-existing parties, Unity and Fatherland, has no ideology except its devotion to Putin. But this was enough to win it almost half the Duma seats in 2003, and 70 per cent of them in 2007. It has attempted to set itself up as a latter-day version of the Soviet Communist Party, spanning the country with a vast bureaucratic machine that has acted as a source of power and privilege in its own right. Party membership, as in Soviet times, has become a path for advancement. The difference is that today, advancement seems to be sought largely for the opportunities it allows for corruption and embezzlement. Hence the protesters’ label for the party, and their détournements of its logo: in one version, the iconic silhouette of a Russian bear has its hand in a giant honey pot; in another, it is making off with a bag of loot.

Growing popular distaste for United Russia found a partial outlet in the regional elections held last March in a dozen of the country’s 83 subdivisions. United Russia won a majority of the vote in only three of them, performing particularly poorly in the heartland of European Russia – above all in the cities, where its share of the vote in some cases sank below 30 per cent. The erosion of United Russia’s appeal was doubtless what prompted Putin to set up the All-Russia People’s Front in May 2011, an exercise designed to broaden his electoral base by bringing in scores of pliant ‘civil society’ groups: business associations, trade unions, youth organisations, cultural funds, charities, sports clubs, even the National Union of Beekeepers. The implied downgrading of United Russia, as merely the first ingredient in this meaningless hotchpotch, was clear. Many of its functionaries may have concluded that their livelihoods depended on an improved performance in the December elections.

Producing the right results in elections is, in effect, what local government officials in Russia are for. Since 2004, the heads of the Russian Federation’s sub-units have been appointed by the president: abolishing their election was one of Putin’s first moves in the wake of the Beslan tragedy (in mid-January, in response to the protesters’ demands, he said he would consider reintroducing limited elections). The system is geared to reward loyalty to the Kremlin above anything else – accountability to the actual population is neither here nor there – which means that regional party bosses seek to avoid at all costs the appearance of any signs of disloyalty: reduced votes for United Russia, low turnout figures, anti-government demonstrations. It’s therefore more likely that fraud, rather than stemming from a single, top-down instruction, was delegated to the local level, producing a patchwork of irregularities depending on the zeal and brazenness of the officials concerned.

Electoral swindling, however, isn’t a coincidental byproduct of the system: deception is built into the post-Soviet political order, according to the most penetrating analysis of it, by the late Dmitry Furman, Russia’s leading comparative political scientist until his death in July 2011.[1] Surveying the states of the former USSR, Furman concluded that the dominant political form was ‘imitation democracy’: regimes in which a formal commitment to democratic norms and procedures coexists with a total absence of actual alternatives to the present regime. In most of the Soviet successor states – from Belarus to Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan to Russia – it is impossible for the opposition to come to power. This condition of bezalternativnost developed out of a contradiction that attended the birth of these regimes: the mismatch between the new governments’ supposedly democratic goals and the gaping lack of a popular mandate for their programme of free-market transformation. In Russia, Yeltsin resorted to undemocratic means to force through what his supporters termed ‘democracy’, but as Furman makes clear, the post-Soviet space was strewn with similar conflicts between president and parliament. In most cases, the incumbents won, and then went on to consolidate a hyper-presidentialist system in which the space for opposition gradually narrowed.

In the West, the standard view of Russia’s recent political history draws a sharp distinction between the Yeltsin and Putin presidencies: the former seen as a flawed but essentially democratic statesman, the latter as a sad reversion to sinister Soviet type. There are, of course, significant differences between the outlooks of the two men. Angus Roxburgh’s The Strongman, a chronological account of the Putin era that draws on a plethora of VIP interviews, notes in particular Putin’s absence from Russia during perestroika, a formative experience for others of his generation.[2] But as Furman shows, there are important continuities in the political systems over which the two men presided. The neo-authoritarian turn so often remarked under Putin actually began with Yeltsin: the storming of the parliament in 1993 was in many ways the ‘imitation democratic’ regime’s founding moment, while the invasion of Chechnya that provided the springboard for Putin’s ascent to the presidency reprised the one launched by Yeltsin in 1994, attempting to redeem its humiliating failure. As for the nefarious dealings of state functionaries under Putin, a glance at the record of the Yeltsin years – one crooked privatisation after another; the laundering of billions of dollars through the Bank of New York; the virtual purchase of the government during the ‘loans for shares’ deal of 1996, which won the oligarchs’ backing for Yeltsin’s presidential campaign – suggests plenty of continuities there too.

Furman argues that one should instead see Russia’s post-Soviet presidents as embodying successive phases in the evolution of a single model. A ‘revolutionary’ period of destruction in the 1990s was followed by consolidation in the 2000s; the model’s high-water mark came in 2008, when Putin’s smooth handover to Medvedev demonstrated the president’s complete control over the political system. But the achievement of stability brings its own dangers: the longer the regime stays in power, the less plausible its ‘democratic’ façade becomes, and the more it needs to resort to fraud to maintain its grip. This is one factor making ‘imitation democratic’ regimes more vulnerable than their Communist predecessors: unlike the USSR, they are supposed to hold meaningful elections every few years. A second weakness has to do with ideology: there are no substantial justifications for the present regime that can compare even with the hollow promises of ‘actually existing socialism’. Kremlin ideologues have tried to concoct suitable concepts, but ‘sovereign democracy’ and ‘managed democracy’ proved too patently empty to work, more exercises in marketing than expressions of a coherent worldview.

Post-Soviet regimes may resemble their predecessors more closely in their propensity to stagnation. With solidity comes the threat of ossification, as the upper echelons, grown accustomed to uncontested power, start to lose touch with reality. There have certainly been signs of this in Putin: among his various attention-seeking exploits, in December 2010 he sang and played ‘Blueberry Hill’, terribly, to a select audience of donors and diplomats; last August he emerged from a dip in the Black Sea clutching two ancient Greek amphorae, amazingly undiscovered by teams of archaeologists who had minutely searched the same area. The element of farce central to the long degradation of authority in Brezhnev’s USSR is increasingly present in Russian political life. Its high point came when, at United Russia’s party congress in September, Medvedev proposed Putin as its candidate for president, and Putin immediately returned the favour by putting Medvedev forward for the premiership, thus making it clear that the latter had merely been keeping his seat warm for the last four years. The contempt for the popular will this conveyed provoked a mixture of disbelief, anger and ridicule that fed into the protests a few weeks later.

The demonstration of 24 December on Moscow’s Sakharov Prospekt drew the largest crowd since the mass marches of the perestroika era. Along with parallels to the colour revolutions, comparisons with the final days of the Soviet Union have been circulating feverishly in recent weeks, in Russia and beyond. The principal organisers of the emerging protest movement have consciously tried to provoke such echoes, hoping to imply a similarity between their cause and earlier struggles against an authoritarian regime. The choice of date for the latest miting – Russians adopted the English word more than a century ago – was designed to resonate with the enormous march around Moscow’s Garden Ring of 4 February 1990, against the CPSU’s monopoly on political representation. (The city government, doubtless aware of the parallel being sought, insisted it be held in the same place as the demonstration of 10 December, on an island in the centre of the capital.)

Beyond these elective affinities, there is some degree of sociological overlap between the two moments. A survey of the 24 December demonstration by the Levada Centre suggested that the protesters were on the whole members of the intelligentsia, broadly defined to include highly qualified technical personnel: 62 per cent of those surveyed had higher education degrees and 46 per cent were employed as ‘specialists’. Many described themselves as ‘democrats’ and Yabloko voters – 38 per cent, compared to no more than 4 per cent nationwide. The majority declared themselves well-off enough not to worry about food or clothing, but more expensive items – such as a car – were beyond their reach: this profile, too, fits the recent experience of the intelligentsia.

At first glance, then, the current protests seem to be a rerun of the intelligentsia’s turn against the regime under perestroika. But they stretch far beyond this in political terms. The umbrella organisation that has emerged from the protests, and which co-ordinated the march on 4 February, is called For Honest Elections. It includes not only established liberal parties such as Yabloko and Boris Nemtsov’s Solidarity, but also such leftist groups as the Russian Socialist Movement and the Left Front, and nationalist outfits such as the Movement against Illegal Immigration (DPNI), the Russian Public Movement and various groupuscules waving the tricolour of the Romanov dynasty. Alongside all these are a number of social organisations: ecologists protesting the destruction of Khimki forest, north-east of Moscow, by a planned motorway; the Blue Buckets, campaigning against abuses of authority by traffic police; the local franchise of the e-libertarian Pirate Party; and the avowedly ‘non-political’ League of Voters, which includes many prominent intellectuals and cultural figures, such as the TV personality Leonid Parfyonov, the ageing rock star Yuri Shevchuk and the writers Dmitry Bykov, Liudmila Ulitskaia and Grigory Chkhartishvili (better known as Boris Akunin).

This political breadth is in part a product of the narrowness of the ‘imitation democratic’ system: most opinions are excluded from Russia’s pocket parliament. But it also reflects the different experience of the post-Soviet generation. According to the Levada Centre, while almost half the protesters surveyed on 24 December were over the age of forty, 31 per cent were aged between 25 and 39, and a quarter between 18 and 24. Most of these people have come of age under Putinism, and know little else: the Yeltsin era would have seemed a chaotic blur, and the USSR something akin to Atlantis. Older cohorts of the liberal intelligentsia tend to see Putin’s Russia as a reincarnation of the Soviet Union – but with the KGB playing a more central, and profitable, role – with the implication that the free-market capitalism installed in the 1990s is being undone. Many in the younger generation, by contrast, see the present system as precisely the product of the Yeltsin years: what was installed was not capitalist, but some deformed, neither/nor entity that should now be done away with in favour of a more transparent, less crooked capitalism.

This is the outlook of the protest movement’s emblematic figure, Aleksei Navalny, who since 2007 has become a household name in Russia thanks to his blog and his anti-corruption campaigns against some of the country’s most powerful companies. (He is also responsible for spreading the ‘party of crooks and thieves’ slogan.) In a recent book based on interviews with him, which gives the most detailed portrait to date, he observes that his generation was ‘caught between the Soviet Union and the market economy – no longer “there”, but not yet “here”’.[3] A self-professed ‘market fundamentalist’ in the 1990s, he subsequently realised that ‘in Russia, the source of money is not entrepreneurial talent … money is born from power.’ His best-known campaigns have involved buying shares in a well-connected company, and then demanding, as a minority shareholder, to see the accounts: where did the $300 million the oil company Transneft supposedly donated to charity in 2007 actually go? Why were the oil-drilling rigs purchased by VTB Bank at a vastly inflated price simply dumped in the snowy wastelands of the Yamal Peninsula? Navalny also runs two sites which crowdsource his projects: RosPil – from the Russian verb pilit, meaning ‘to saw off’, i.e. embezzle – encourages users to scrutinise government tenders; RosYama allows them to report excessively large potholes.

There is no doubt that corruption is endemic in Russia today, reaching from the lowliest traffic cop seemingly to Putin himself. An investigation by the Financial Times last November shed light on a network of Putin associates who have become fabulously wealthy since his ascent to power, largely through murky purchases of Gazprom affiliates. Persistent speculation surrounds Putin’s connections with Gennady Timchenko, cofounder of Putin’s judo club, whose oil trading company, Gunvor, has done particularly well since 2003. Then there are the rumours – reported by, among others, Catherine Belton in the FT – about a palace built for Putin on the Black Sea coast worth $16 million, and of his own hidden personal wealth.[4] Navalny’s willingness to follow trails like these, trying to hold the powerful to account for their corruption, is part of what has made him so popular. But what drives him is not hatred of inequality so much as hatred of cheating: in his view, genuine entrepreneurs haven’t flourished as they should in Russia because of ‘Komsomol bastards’ profiting from political clout or personal networks. For him, malversation is a symptom of Russia’s incomplete transition to capitalism, rather than a structural feature of the kind of capitalism the country has.

There is another dimension to Navalny’s public persona that enables him to connect the liberal camp of the protest movement with the nationalists. Having joined Yabloko in 2000, Navalny was expelled in 2007 for helping to organise the Russian March, a gathering of far-right nationalists whose best-known slogan is ‘Russia for the ethnic Russians!’ He tells his interviewer that ‘what is discussed at the Russian March, if we abstract from the people shouting “Sieg Heil”, reflects a real agenda that concerns a great many people.’ Navalny espouses a brand of postmodern chauvinism that, while distancing itself from the lunatic fringe, at the same time seeks to normalise its preoccupations. ‘I’m not against people coming here,’ he says, ‘but they need to behave in accordance with the generally agreed norms … Here, it’s normal not to dance the lezginka on Manezhnaia Square’ – a reference to an imagined intrusion of Caucasian folklore into central Moscow.

The North Caucasus is the object of particular venom among Russian nationalists, most recently for budgetary reasons. The republics of Russia’s mountainous south all depend heavily on federal subventions, and since the economic downturn of 2009 ‘Stop Feeding the Caucasus’ has been a frequent slogan of far-right marches, attacking not only the lavish lifestyles of the Kremlin’s placemen in the region, but also the idea that any federal revenues should go to non-Russian areas at all. Navalny has endorsed the slogan and seems to share the enmity behind it. Shortly after his exit from Yabloko, he appeared in a video put out by a nationalist organisation he cofounded called Narod (‘The People’). Breezily discussing how to deal with cockroaches and flies, he asks: what do you do if the cockroach is too big, or the fly too aggressive? At this point, an image of Shamil Basaev, the Chechen Islamist warlord, appears alongside him on the screen, and then a shadowy, bearded figure emerges from behind the camera and attacks Navalny with a knife; he shoots the figure with a pistol, and when the smoke clears, the message of the video appears: carrying firearms should be legalised. The combination of macho humour and dehumanisation – of course, it’s not actually saying we should shoot Chechens, but it is implying they are insects – is all the more chilling in its blandness. And in its familiarity: it reminds you of no one so much as Vladimir Putin.

Indeed, in some respects Navalny is harsher than Putin. The latter has echoed many of the demands Navalny and the nationalists have made, promising a clampdown on illegal migration and calling for internal migrants to ‘respect local customs’. But he has so far resisted the idea – advocated by Navalny and others – of reintroducing a visa regime for former Soviet countries, the main source of the labourers who build Russia’s roads and apartment blocks, drive its taxis and clean its streets. Navalny, meanwhile, objects not only to immigrants’ presence but even to their posture: ‘They should stop sitting on their haunches! It drives me crazy.’

The combination of chauvinism and entrepreneurial frustration makes Navalny a peculiar synthesis of post-Soviet trends: an Orthodox Christian, he professes his love for the fatherland while admiring the corporate governance of Western ‘blue chip’ companies; he blogs in the wry, deliberately mispelled idiom characteristic of the Russian internet, moving seamlessly from anecdotes about his family life to notes on the colossal rake-offs involved in the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline. The mixture of aspirations and prejudices – wifi, shareholder value, casual xenophobia – seems very much a product of the oil boom that preceded the current crisis, and of the climate of post-imperial ressentiment on which Putin has capitalised. In other words, it was Putin who made Navalny possible. This is what makes his popularity all the more troubling: his politics preserve so many features of Putinism that, though they reject its figurehead, they offer little sense of what would change if he were replaced.

The sense of underlying similarity increases when one looks at two other figures who have attached themselves to the protests: Aleksei Kudrin, the ex-finance minister who was sacked by Medvedev in September after a public disagreement over defence spending; and Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire playboy and metals oligarch who is standing for president with the underwhelming slogan ‘If Not Me, Then Who?’ Many suspect that both men have been licensed by the Kremlin to join the protest movement and redirect its energies, either into pointless negotiations with Putin or into Prokhorov’s doomed campaign (he is currently polling around 4 per cent). Their credibility as opponents of the system is minimal: even as Kudrin was attending the demonstrations in December, Putin referred to him as ‘a member of my team’; Prokhorov, expelled from his own Right Cause party last year after noisily falling out with the Kremlin’s former chief strategist, Vladislav Surkov, was conveniently let back in just in time to stand for president. He advocates an even more hardline neoliberal programme than the government’s, including a further wave of privatisations. The purpose of letting him stand, indeed, may be to offer voters such an unpalatable alternative that they cleave to Putin. Something similar may apply to the nationalists, whose presence in the demonstrations has horrified parts of the liberal intelligentsia and caused alarm in non-ethnic Russian regions: the Kremlin and Moscow’s city government have been all too happy for them to hold protests, perhaps because this too makes the existing regime look like a more reasonable option.

The simplicity of the immediate task – calling for fair elections and for a concerted anti-Putin vote on 4 March – has made it easier for the protest movement to maintain its ideological breadth. But it has also entailed an inability to develop a longer-term programme, which would extend beyond the electoral horizon to what a ‘Russia without Putin’ would look like. On this, the different components of the alliance would immediately disagree: more market or less? Increased social expenditure or cutbacks? Greater Russianness or Eurasian multiculturalism? More important, the movement lacks a broad social base. For all the thousands who have joined the demonstrations since early December, the protests remain very much the project of an urban, educated minority: the vast majority of the Russian population has stood aside. When the Levada Centre surveyed attitudes to the protests in the country as a whole in mid-December, the results were striking: while 44 per cent said they supported the protests, 77 per cent said they would not join them in future, and 67 per cent assumed they would abate before long. Unless and until the protest movement acquires a coherent vision of how it would seek to change Russian society, and why, the generalised inertia of the populace will continue to favour the regime.

Sudden swings of opinion and surges of popular mobilisation are possible in Russia, as they are elsewhere. The disintegration of the USSR, nine months after most of its population voted to preserve it, should warn against historical complacency. But twenty years on, the Soviet collapse holds some less encouraging lessons for the present. Much ink has been spilled on the causes of the USSR’s demise, and clearly no single explanation will do. There is little doubt, though, that the coup de grâce was administered not by the vast numbers of demonstrators who rejected a decaying system, but by the rapid defection of the elites from Soviet institutions to national ones within the Union’s 15 republics. The centrifuge of sovereignty pulled the USSR apart by offering its political class a means of making off with assets that would ensure their power and influence were preserved. Today’s Russian Federation is a heavily centralised state, and the prerogatives of its components have been reined in precisely to avoid giving regional leaders a comparable exit route. The interests, and the fortunes, of the upper echelons of government and business depend on the regime’s survival, and they will fight hard to retain them. It’s this vast edifice of wealth, privilege and authority that the protest movement is really confronting behind Putin’s self-satisfied mask.

[1] Dvizhenie po spirali: politicheskaia sistema Rossii v riadu drugikh politicheskikh sistem (Ves Mir, 2010).

[2] I.B. Tauris, 338 pp., £20, March, 978 1 78076 016 2.

[3] Aleksei Navalnyi: Groza zhulikov i vorov, edited by Konstantin Voronkov (Eksmo, 224 pp., 246 roubles, February, 978 5 699 53227 8).

[4] Masha Gessen’s The Man without a Face, to be published on 1 March, may produce further revelations.